It is surely one of the more frequently asked questions in sport: just who are the best players in the Scottish lower leagues? It is certainly a topic that the writers of this site have endlessly debated on with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall. Drafting a longlist for such an article proved challenging, with frantic e-mail following overwrought e-mail arguing the merits of the various candidates. It took us weeks to come to an uneasy agreement, but in the end we got there. The list of around 40 was eventually whittled down to a manageable 25.
The 25 players boast an array of talent, each bringing their own unique qualities to the party. They were not necessarily selected for their potential, but instead their current ability, with their level of performance over the previous two seasons coming under the closest scrutiny. And here they are, ranked and rated.
There is something we feel we must state before we proceed, however: do not come looking for truth here, because there is none. This is not a definitive list and nor should it be treated as such. There is no objectivity here – how could there be? We’re comparing goalkeepers to midfielders and full-backs to forwards; it makes as much sense as comparing a cat to a lorry.
Instead, just enjoy it for what it is: a simple list that celebrates some of the best and, in some cases, unheralded talents in the backwaters of Scottish football.
25) ALAN TROUTEN (Brechin City)
Brechin City’s Alan Trouten makes this feature on the back of the finest 12 months of his career. Twenty-one goals in 36 appearances throughout 2013 have rejuvenated a player who was in danger of failing to live up to his early promise. A classy, attack-minded midfielder, the 28-year-old endured two relegations in four seasons after leaving Queen’s Park in 2008 but has since proven his undoubted talent under Ray McKinnon at Glebe Park.
After leaving Greenock Morton’s youth academy in 2004, Trouten joined Queen’s Park and formed part of a golden generation that won promotion from the Third Division in 2007. Billy Stark’s young side, celebrated by their captain Stuart Kettlewell in an interview with this website in May, played an attractive brand of offensive, possession-based football. “Everything that we did under Stark was about technique, passing the ball and trying to play the right way,” Kettlewell enthused; this grounding is clear to see in Trouten’s game.
Stark left in January 2008 to take up a post coaching Scotland’s U-21 squad, and although his replacement Gardner Speirs was able to guide the Spiders to Second Division safety, he could not prevent an exodus of the team’s finest talent. Touten and Kettlewell signed two-year agreements with John Brown’s Clyde but the move to the First Division side was unsuccessful. The club were relegated and both players were asked to terminate their contracts midway through after the club experienced financial difficulties.
Trouten moved on to Airdrie United but experienced another disappointing campaign. The Diamonds were defeated in the play-off final by Ayr United but were spared relegation after Livingston’s demotion to Division Three. The player transferred to Somerset Park and won promotion to the First Division in his first season at the club, and followed the success with another relegation the next year. Despite making over 70 appearances for the Honest Men, it often felt as though Trouten was a peripheral figure within the team. As Brian Reid persevered with an orthodox 4-4-2 system, doubts were cast over whether Trouten was robust enough to occupy a central midfield role or mobile enough to play out wide. Suffering from persistent hamstring problems and unable to function in a defensive, more direct side, the Ayr support did not see the best of him.
He left for Jim Weir’s Brechin in the summer of 2012. The unpopular Weir was ousted after seven matches and replaced by Ray McKinnon; the new manager’s impact was instantaneous, and Trouten perhaps benefitted more than anyone from his appointment. Handed a free role in a 4-2-3-1 formation behind striker Andy Jackson, their fluid attacking play allowed Trouten to revel in the lines between the opposition defence and midfield. Within this system, the player is masterful at finding space in the final third of the pitch and in particular, the penalty box, something which can be attributed to his impressive scoring record this calendar year (including eight this term). His ability to glide across the pitch at pace is also effortless.
With Brechin having been unexpectedly dragged into a relegation scrap this term, McKinnon must continue to play football “in the right way” if he is able to move his team away from the foot of the table and continue to get the best out of Trouten. AG
24) CALLUM MORRIS (Dunfermline Athletic)
A Republic of Ireland U-21 international during his time as a Newcastle United trainee, Callum Morris appeared to have lost his way after his release from the Magpies in May 2010. A spell with the Glen Hoddle Academy, where he played with fourth tier Spanish side Jerez Industrial CF, was punctuated by a handful of trials in the English lower leagues and further afield, before a disillusioned Morris wound up at Northern League Division Two’s Morpeth Town – a club playing six levels below the Football League – at the beginning of 2012.
It was Ken Beattie, the Morpeth chairman, who persuaded Morris to travel to Fife to try out for Dunfermline Athletic in August 2012 – Beattie even drove the player to the train station himself and paid for his ticket. After impressing on trial, Morris was awarded a one-year contract with the option of a 12-month extension; such was his impact at East End Park, Jim Jefferies exercised the option just four weeks later.
Having previously captained Newcastle’s reserve teams, Morris is a natural leader and such qualities have proved crucial as his club’s financial strife stripped the squad of the large majority of the senior players: when the centre-back made his Pars debut in August 2012, he made up a back four alongside Jordan McMillan, Stephen Jordan and Andy Dowie; by the end of the season, he was responsible for marshalling a defence in which, at 23, he was the eldest player. Morris’s showings on the pitch throughout that traumatic campaign earned him a place in the PFA First Division Team of the Year but he was helpless in preventing Dunfermline’s descent into League 1, with a hamstring injury ended his season before the relegation play-offs.
Leading the Pars back into the Championship is his focus this season. Organising an enthusiastic but callow backline, where full-backs Ross Millen and Alex Whittle are encouraged to get forward at any opportunity, is no easy task but Morris has performed admirably. The testing circumstances have not detracted from his game – he remains a composed centre-back who can anticipate the game, relying on a brisk turn of pace when necessary. He is equally as capable in the air and shows aggression when challenging for high balls.
Morris is out of contract at the end of the season, and the future certainly looks bright for the youngster. It is difficult to believe he was so close to settling for the lower reaches of English non-league football just 16 months ago. AG
23) STEPHEN KINGSLEY (Falkirk)
There was a time, immediately prior to the launch of this website, that Falkirk’s right-back Kieran Duffie was regarded as one of the best players of the lower leagues. Duffie once dominated the whole of the right flank from his full-back position, stretching play for his side’s midfielders and creating countless chances and assists for cult icon Farid El Alagui.
Is it that Duffie has regressed to the point that his ability now reduces him to being merely quite good and only occasionally supporting his team’s attacks, or is it that circumstances have changed and that Falkirk no longer solely rely on the right-back to create so much? While Steven Pressley’s cagey tactics through the second half of 2012 went some way to suppressing Duffie’s attacking instincts, the player’s lessening obvious impression on matches is perhaps more to do with the rise of Stephen Kingsley on the other side of defence.
During the 2011-12 season, Duffie was allowed to provide his team’s attacking width at will because the defence was counter-balanced by the more conservative Tam Scobbie, who typically played like a converted centre-back and acted as a ballast to Duffie’s forays forward. However, as Scobbie’s contract was allowed to expire, his replacement Kingsley has been a constant presence over the last two seasons and has improved from an immediate high standard almost on a weekly basis.
Kingsley probably endured the toughest match of his short career recently against Dundee, when Nicky Riley ran at him on the ball on the inside and outside of him. However, having just about passed that test, Kingsley has generally shown against the rest of the Championship that it is difficult to get behind him.
Not that defending is his stand-out quality. His ease on the ball in compact spaces further up the touch-line; his ability to take on and beat his opponent; and to comfortably involve himself within passing triangles anywhere up the pitch marks him out as an exciting full-back who could feasibly play in a more prominent and central role in another team, or more realistically prosper at a higher level in his current position. Despite not being as outrageously athletic as Andrew Robertson and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, two left-backs who instantly made positive impressions in the Premiership, Kingsley is nevertheless the most technically proficient left-back in the lower leagues since Boab Harris left Queen of the South. JAM
22) IAIN RUSSELL (Queen of the South)
There are some footballers who never escape the confines of Scotland’s lower leagues through their playing time but who, nonetheless, are still able to make a good career for themselves. Iain Russell is such a player, having made a handful of games for Motherwell at the beginning of his professional life, but has since gone on to play through Scotland’s second and third levels of senior football.
Having recently turned 31, Russell has made almost 250 league starts in the lower tiers and has scored a highly respectable 126 goals – one goal for every two starts across the divisions is not to be sniffed at. Considering the striker had a relatively dry run when returning to full-time football at Greenock Morton after a three seasons at Dumbarton and a hugely profitable year at Brechin City, his goal record alone makes him a success at every other club he has been to.
A loan spell at championship-winning Stirling Albion in the latter part of 2009-10 re-established his credentials, but Russell really found his stride again when he returned to the Second Division with Livingston. His peerless pace and clinical finishing when one-on-one with a goalkeeper helped propel his side back into the second tier, where he has played since. As Russell’s speed over 15 yards appeared to have diminished ever so slightly with age, he has evolved his game and his inside-outside-in runs through the left-hand channel have posed a significant attacking threat to opposition backlines over the last few years.
Having moved to Queen of the South during the most recent summer, Russell has made the most of Jim McIntyre’s general preference to a 4-3-3. The player’s deployment on the left of the offensive trident allows him to attack the blind-side of full-backs at the far post when service is provided from a winger at the other side. Whether by pace and movement in aiming to get on to a through ball, or by meeting crosses from a running start, Russell has proved a success again this season and has already scored eight league goals. While never a player at his best with his back to goal, his effectiveness when cutting on to his stronger foot when facing the opponent’s goalkeeper is arguably without comparison below the Premiership. JAM
21) MICHAEL MOFFAT (Ayr United)
It remains something of a mystery why Michael Moffat didn’t make the step up to senior football until a month before his 26th birthday. Since joining Ayr United from Girvan in January 2011, “The Moff” has established himself as one of League 1’s most clinical strikers (recently reaching the milestone of 50 goals in just 120 starting appearances), as well as becoming a firm fans’ favourite at Somerset Park.
Moffat first featured for Ayr in a series of friendlies at the beginning of the 2010-11 season but was only recruited from Girvan six months later, a club where he had spent six years. The Ayr support were instantly taken by his industry – his willingness to hound opposition defenders was in stark contrast to the laconic Andy Rodgers, whom he eventually replaced in the starting line-up (this is by no means a criticism of Rodgers, a more mercurial forward). Moffat’s first goal came in his eighth appearance, a 5-0 thrashing at Airdrie United, and the strike was greeted with jubilation from team-mates and travelling fans alike: rarely has a goal been as anticipated.
The striker went on to play a pivotal role as his side won promotion to the First Division via the play-offs. He concluded the season with 11 goals, scoring in all four play-off fixtures including the decisive 88th minute winner against Brechin City in the final. The strike was archetypal Moffat: taking up a position in the left-hand margin of the penalty box, he collected Scott McLaughlin’s pass, adjusted his body, and sent a low left-foot shot across Craig Nelson and into the net. It was not the cleanest of efforts – very few of Moffat’s goals have been struck from outside the box – but highlighted him at his most dangerous.
As well as his finishing, another key attribute is his pace. Running from deep at defenders, forcing them onto the back foot, had proved profitable on numerous occasions but it indirectly led to Brian Reid stationing Moffat on the left flank during their most recent spell in the First Division. A return of nine goals was credible given the circumstances but after replacing Reid as manager in 2012, Mark Roberts described Moffat’s deployment in midfield as “criminal”.
Restored to frontline, Moffat returned to goal-scoring form last season and netted 21 times, despite his side’s travails. He already looks likely to improve on that total this term after scoring 14 goals in 16 league matches already. Taking up a role with the club’s academy in the summer has allowed Moffat, who turns 29 in February, to focus exclusively on football (it must be noted that the player looks fitter now than at any point in his career) and coupled to his locality, a move elsewhere seems improbable.
Ayr can only benefit from these circumstances. With the player reaching his peak, he surely deserves another opportunity to prove himself in the second tier with the Honest Men. AG
20) DAVID ANDERSON (Queen’s Park)
Although Queen’s Park’s current season has been desperately poor, it would be somewhat remiss to dismiss a player of David Anderson’s quality just because his team are going through a tough time of it at the moment. While the Spiders have struggled with the loss of key personnel and Gardner Speirs’s increasingly myopic approach, Anderson’s performances have continued to be of a high calibre – he is a wonderful talent and, for some time, has been the best midfielder in the fourth tier.
Signed from Kilbirnie Ladeside in 2010, Anderson quickly assimilated into league football and found a niche as his side’s deep-lying playmaker. At his best, the player stations himself in front of the QP defence and takes the ball from the centre-backs before looking to find better positioned team-mates further upfield. There is nothing overly fanciful about the 30-year-old – a drop of the shoulder here, a quick dart forward there – his game is instead almost exclusively based on precision, economy and maintaining possession through short, clinical passes. He is not a potent goal threat, nor is he an accomplished ball-winner, but his shrewdness has been central to his team’s three consecutive play-off semi-final appearances.
Having missed eight weeks of the season through injury, his return to fitness in October coincided with QP’s brief upturn in form – with Anderson in the team, the Spiders have a player comfortable with taking and keeping the ball higher up the pitch. Although he relies on neatness and simplicity rather than grand gestures, Anderson is capable of producing the occasional moment of outrageous audacity. In his side’s recent fixture with Elgin City, he found himself 25 yards from goal with several opposition players closing in. No matter: in one deft movement, the midfielder clipped a weighted sand wedge chip up and over the defence to allow Blair Spittal to open the scoring.
Anderson is certainly capable of performing one level higher but for the moment at least, he appears content at Queen’s Park. If the team continue to languish at the foot of the table, one would hope that Anderson would be willing to test himself in an arena more fitting of his ability next season. CGT
19) CHRIS TURNER (Dumbarton)
Ian Murray called it right: “Chris Turner re-signing for us is excellent. When he and Scott Agnew both play well, the whole team plays well.” The Dumbarton manager’s straightforward assessment of the importance of Turner was echoed by supporters who united in delight at the announcement of Turner’s two-year contract in May – the 26-year-old Ulsterman is acknowledged as one of the Championship’s best all-round midfielders and played a vital role in the Sons’ unlikely survival last term.
Turner transferred to Dumbarton in September 2012, his second spell in Scotland. He joined Alan Adamson’s side following a successful period at Shamrock Rovers that saw the team win back-to-back league titles in 2009 and 2010 and make history by becoming the first Irish side to qualify for the group stages of the Europa League. Michael O’Neill, his manager at the time, was to later advise Greenock Morton’s Allan Moore that the player was the division’s best midfielder during that period.
Before returning to Ireland, Turner experienced a largely unheralded and underwhelming stint at Partick Thistle in 2008. The player spent six weeks on trial at Rangers before signing a one-year agreement with Ian McCall’s team and enjoyed an outstanding debut, scoring within five minutes of his introduction as a substitute in a Challenge Cup quarter-final tie against Livingston. His time at Firhill was generally unhappy, however, and the midfielder made just five further appearances before his release in January 2009. Turner often only hinted at his talents, with glimpses of skill shown betwixt long periods of indolence.
He returned to Ireland, signing for Dundalk. Turner seemed to have put his disappointing spell in Scotland firmly behind him as he scored 12 goals from midfield in 2009 before moving on to Shamrock Rovers: it is clear that the player who came back to Scotland is considerably better than the one that left.
While Agnew provides Dumbarton with ingenuity from the middle of the park, Turner is the player that makes them tick. A keen competitor and a wholehearted tackler, he is capable of protecting his side’s back four and providing cover when necessary. It would be wrong to simply label him as a mere enforcer – Turner’s aptitude at going forward is equally as strong and the addition of Hugh Murray to the Sons’ defensive roster this year has been a fine move. When fit, Murray allows Turner the freedom to move upfield, and his tally of four goals has already bettered last term’s.
Before agreeing his new contract with Dumbarton, Turner rejected a move to full-time football with Greenock Morton; how they could have been doing with his steel this season. His all-action performances will be crucial if the Sons are to avoid relegation once again. AG
18) ZIGGY GORDON (Hamilton Academical)
Hamilton Academical’s lauded production line might have slowed down a little in recent years but the emergence – and the improvement – of Ziggy Gordon over the past 18 months suggests that their youth academy has developed another talented player of rich potential.
The 20-year-old full-back made his debut in the second half of the Accies’ 2010-11 Premier League campaign in a 0-2 defeat to St Johnstone, and would go on to make one further appearance later in the year. Following their demotion, Gordon was afforded more playing time in the First Division and featured on nine occasions in a difficult season, with his team finishing the term 30 points behind champions Ross County.
Although his early performances in the first team were largely inconsistent, they could have perhaps been attributed to Billy Reid selecting him to fill in gaps across the backline. Over the course of the season, he played on either flank and even in central defence when necessary. It was in 2012-13 when he truly established himself at the club after his promotion to first-choice right-back – popular with both Reid and his replacement Alex Neil, Gordon has been almost ever-present in the side since.
Last season, Hamilton’s lack of width placed Gordon in an invidious position, with the player having to both defend and attack the flanks without assistance. The role didn’t necessarily come naturally but he adapted over time with success – although Stevie May’s goal-scoring exploits garnered the most acclaim, it was the full-back who was awarded the club’s Player of the Year.
Neil described Gordon as the most improved player in the division; it’s easy to see why. Not only is he strong in the tackle, his challenges are meticulously timed, a quality which has contributed to an exemplary disciplinary record. Gordon’s growing confidence in running at and beating opponents has seen him develop into a forceful offensive outlet for his team, and his willingness to shoot from range has yielded two goals this term – a tally that will surely increase as the season progresses.
There are rumours that a number of English teams have shown interest in Gordon, and it is inevitable that the player will soon be performing at a level above the Scottish Championship. As Hamilton continue to charge through the league, their supporters will be hoping he will be doing just that next year, but whilst still wearing the red and white hoops. SM
17) ROSS McMILLAN (Stenhousemuir)
If Ross McMillan had begun playing senior football earlier in his career, he would surely be performing at a level far above the Scottish League 1. It is a common school of thought shared not just by his more partisan supporters at Stenhousemuir, but also by neutral fans who have observed his statuesque performances since graduating from junior football as a 27-year-old. Now 31, McMillan is never likely to play beyond the Championship but he is one of the lower leagues’ most well-rounded defenders and combines unmatched physicality with a cerebral awareness.
In 2010, the centre-back joined Stuart Millar’s Clyde from Largs Thistle and despite the Bully Wee enduring a dismal season and concluding the Third Division campaign in tenth place, McMillan’s term was marked by personal excellence. His assimilation into the Second Division the following season with Stenhousemuir was equally as straightforward and it is at Ochilview where he established himself a player of esteem.
The Warriors captain revels in the rough and tumble of the sport and his tall, muscular build is more in keeping with a WWE superstar than a footballer. His ability to contest aerial duels – perhaps one of the most important qualities of any defender in lower leagues – is his greatest strength, with opposition forwards rarely besting him. He is equally adept at patrolling the deck, where his acceleration and pace across short distances allows him to harry and block attacks. McMillan is much more than a mere stopper, however, and his capabilities on the ball – both in bringing the ball out of defence and his distribution allow him to operate as either an A or B defender. His finest performances at Stenhousemuir have come alongside the ultra-macho Scot Buist, whose coercion and encouragement last season brought out the best in him.
For all his qualities, McMillan is occasionally prone to rashness, particularly when caught out by tricky opponents blind-siding him. He has been dismissed twice already this season when opposition players have worked their way in behind him (his red card for handball in the Scottish Cup replay with Annan Athletic was lamentable). There is also a growing tendency to shell the ball towards the forwards rather than attempt to play from the back, but this may have more to do with Martyn Corrigan’s reductive tactics than a lack of passing ability.
This season, Stenhousemuir have been defensively shambolic, with both individual and collective errors undermining their campaign so far, and McMillan must be appropriated his share of the blame for the backline’s failure to function as a cohesive unit (his performance in the 0-8 defeat to Rangers was inept). Corrigan’s failure to source a capable deputy to replace the stricken Buist has done little to help matters, with either Eddie Malone (a full-back moved infield out of necessity) or Ross Smith (simply not good enough for League 1) incompatible alongside McMillan.
If the manager is able to bring in a second centre-back over the coming weeks (former Greenock Morton player Stewart Greacan is rumoured to be joining in January) and configure his side into something more tangible than their current shapeless system, then both McMillan and Stenhousemuir will benefit. The defender is at his best in a settled team and a return to form will no doubt coincide with his side’s challenge for a play-off place. CGT
16) SCOTT BAIN (Alloa Athletic)
Given the rapid rise of Scott Bain over the last two-and-a-half years, one can only imagine if the coaching staff at Aberdeen’s youth academy have regretted their failure to recognise his talent at an earlier juncture. Released by the Dons in 2011, Bain was immediately recruited by Paul Hartley at Alloa Athletic and established himself as one of the finest young goalkeepers in the lower leagues at. It is entirely likely that the player could be competing against his former club soon enough: despite rejecting offers from full-time teams in the summer to remain at Recreation Park, it can only be a matter of time before he moves to bigger things.
Having previously been selected for Scotland’s U-19 squads, Bain made his first senior appearance during a loan spell with Elgin City at the beginning of the 2010-11 campaign. Although Elgin were largely dismal during his time at the club, the goalkeeper played well when called upon and kept four clean sheets in 11 appearances between August and November. Despite being well regarded by his coaches at Aberdeen, he was allowed to leave the club at the end of the season. Coincidentally, Paul Hartley was also departing Pittodrie at the same time to take up the manager’s role at the recently relegated Alloa; the pair agreed terms and Bain was swiftly drafted into the new manager’s squad.
Bain’s adjustment to part-time football was trying, and he struggled throughout the opening of 2011-12. By the beginning of November, he had collected two red cards, the second of which came in a 0-5 mauling at Elgin where he was cautioned twice after conceding two penalties. But as Alloa began to take control of the division, Bain improved dramatically. The rashness that pockmarked his early career at the club was gradually coached out of him and as the Wasps have climbed through the leagues, the goalkeeper has developed impressively.
Indeed, as Alloa continue to ride the crest of a wave, Bain has excelled. His shot-stopping is inarguably his finest quality, but he possesses all the other attributes to succeed: his distribution, both short and form distance is sound; he commands his area well, communicating with his defenders; and he shows bravery when coming from his line when necessary. With a stable and assiduous back four ahead of him, Bain’s job is made more straightforward but is does not diminish the brilliance of his recent performances – since the beginning of November, he has kept five clean sheets in his previous seven matches, including shut-outs against the fancied Raith Rovers and Hamilton Academical.
Bain justified his decision to stay at Alloa by claiming he would be afforded more opportunities for first-team football under Hartley than elsewhere, but whether or not he is as magnanimous about his career in January remains to be see. For the moment at least, Aberdeen’s loss is most certainly Alloa’s gain. CGT